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Review: Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad, Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit

Bee Rowlatt is a BBC journalist looking for an Iraqi woman to interview.  She’s married to a journalist, has two little girls, and leads a fairly normal life in London.  May Witwit is an English professor living in Iraq, teaching things like freedom and democracy to female students who have never had those privileges.  When Bee gets into contact with May, they start emailing each other and soon develop an incredibly close relationship.  As the danger to May escalates, Bee’s worry overcomes her and the friends hatch a plan to get May and her husband out of Baghdad for good.

I loved this book in so many different ways.  It was eye-opening, poignant, and just flat out amazing.  I’m not even sure I can effectively review it – I kind of just want everyone to read it right this minute.

The book is not really a memoir, it’s just a record of every email sent between Bee and May over the course of two years, during which they meet, grow close enough to call one another sisters, and desperately try to get May out of her life-threatening situation.  It’s also not at all about Jane Austen, but I didn’t particularly care.  May is an English professor and that’s about as far as it goes – but the title isn’t what is important here.

At first it was the differences between their lives that struck me – both are intelligent women with incredibly vivid personalities, but location has its effects.  Bee’s biggest problems are that her girls frustrate her and she has fights with her husband occasionally, especially when he goes on work trips for weeks.  She has laundry to do, meals to cook, and works part-time. Her life was so familiar to me, which put it in even more vivid contrast with May’s life.

May is at risk every single day.  Bombs drop next door to her house, her friends and colleagues are killed, and her life is personally threatened.  She could die at any moment and Bee often expresses the worry that she might just never hear from May again.  Because her husband is a Sunni and their marriage has ostracized them from their families, she has to support them both.  In times of danger, he simply can’t leave the house.  The obstacles that prevent them from even emigrating to a neighboring country are absolutely immense and often ridiculous.  May actually laments that things were more organized when Saddam was in control, which I just couldn’t believe.

There was some political comment in the book, of course – May hates the Americans’ presence and feels they’ve made her life worse, which made me so sad, but I could unfortunately see her point.  I think anyone would hate the people who brought danger and war to their doorstep, no matter how well-meaning.  The asylum issue was mentioned again and as usual the women establish that it’s virtually impossible to attain asylum in the UK, especially because you have to get there to do it and they won’t let you in if you’re actually claiming asylum.  They go the academia route instead and try to get May out with a student visa so she can do her PhD.

I just loved the relationship that developed between the two women – it felt so real to me.  They also sometimes talk on the phone or send text messages, which left unfortunate little gaps in the narrative.  I was greedy for all of their contact, really.  It was incredible to read about two women with entirely different life experiences just connecting.  I feel like this sort of story can go a long way towards reminding us that we’re all people, no matter what religion or skin color – it genuinely doesn’t matter, and I wish that it didn’t in reality to so many.

I think what I can’t sum up so easily is that Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad moved me incredibly.  I was cheering for May the whole way and at times I could easily have broken into tears.  Their story was just amazing and I hope that more people read it and learn that the differences between us aren’t really so immense after all.

I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my local library.

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11 comments to Review: Talking about Jane Austen in Baghdad, Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit

  • I love epistolary books, so this one may just be right up my alley.
    .-= Stephanie´s last blog ..The Sunday Salon =-.

  • Ok, you’ve convinced me… I have to try this book! It sounds like a really moving and thoughtful read, and the fact that it is written in epistolary form really intrigues me. Going to have to see where I can get a copy!! Thanks for the great review!!
    .-= zibilee´s last blog ..Winner of Glorious Giveaway! =-.

  • Oh, this sounds really good. I was sort of skeptical at first, since the title sounds so derivative of “Reading Lolita in Tehran.”
    .-= Jen – Devourer of Books´s last blog ..Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman – Book Review =-.

  • Like Jen, I feel this book may have benefited from a better title :-) But if you love it, I’m willing to give it a whirl! I really try to find those books that people feel so passionate about- I know it feels so good when someone takes you up on your suggestion!
    .-= Aarti´s last blog ..TSS: NYRB Classics! =-.

  • I couldn’t help but notice the derivative title also, but that doesn’t really matter – what matters is that this sounds like an incredibly powerful and moving book. And the fact that it’s epistolary only makes it more appealing.
    .-= Nymeth´s last blog ..Illyria by Elizabeth Hand =-.

  • It’s funny that they chose that title since it’s not about Jane Austen, but the book sounds like the kind I just love. Thanks for the review.

  • This does sound amazing. Stories that connect two unlike people really can be a great way of evaluation your own thoughts and feelings about certain things. Thanks for pointing this book out to us. I hadn’t heard of it!
    .-= Becky at “One Literature Nut”´s last blog ..Review: Forever by Judy Blume =-.

  • Oh wow. This sounds so powerful. If a book affected you so deeply, I think it should go on my must-read stack.
    .-= Beth F´s last blog ..Wordless Wednesday 79 =-.

  • Lisa

    It sounds great! It seems to involve completely the readers …. Tomorrow i’ m meeting her, bee rowlatt ….. Wish me luck :)

  • I have to admit I bought this book as it had Jane Austen in the title. I started to read it and couldn’t put it down even though I was supposed to be reading another book for this month’s book group (still haven’t finished that one!). The startling contrasts between the lives of the two women were poignant and it made me reflect on what’s a “normal” life.

  • valerie Hedges

    The true story of May Witwit my childhood neighbour and school friend while she lived in the Uk as a child, now an Iraqi Academic, her survival in Iraq and journey to safety in the UK via her email friendship with a BBC journalist
    •How to survive life in a war zone… leaving earlier to go to work in order to get through the checkpoints …But still going to work!!
    •What to do when doing your hair and the electricity goes off…Go to work half curly and half straight!
    •How to encourage kids to still study during chaos…. show them its business as usual, lessons give a touch of normality…

    The story we didn’t hear in the news, of ordinary daily life during the Iraq war as told by an Iraqi

    It isn’t often that two 51 year old women who were neighbours and school friends aged 11 meet up again in London on a sunny May afternoon after almost 40 years, and when one asks the other “What have you been doing, what has happened to you…?” She knows that it is a daft question really and the answer is too harrowing to imagine for the answer lies in the reply “Read my book!”
    I owe more than I can possibly express to Bee Rowlatt,thanks to her courage, daring and friendship my childhood friend is safe in the Uk, and I have met her again after forty years. An inspiring book that will move the reader to tears in its accounts of courage and put lots of troubles in perspective